The Second World War saw partisan movements in nearly every conflict zone and occupied territory in the world, and the Eastern Front was no exception. Concentrated in occupied Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine, underground resistance movements were organized to disrupt and defeat the German eastern advance. In some cases, these same partisan groups turned on the Soviets following the German capitulation in 1945 to fight for independence from the Soviet Union. Although underground movements were widespread in Eastern Europe, this post focuses on partisan movements in Belarus, Poland, and Ukraine.
When the German military initiated Operation Barbarossa in June 1941, the Red Army was unprepared and forced into retreat, leaving the local populations of Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine to fend for themselves against the invaders. The racial supremacy-driven ideology of the Nazi occupiers bred “expropriations and atrocities” that alienated the occupied populations and “fuelled the growth of the partisan movement, which may have enrolled as many as 200,000 people by 1943” (Freeze, 385). While resistance forces were active everywhere along the Eastern Front, most notable were the partisan movements in Poland/Belarus and Ukraine.
Belarus stands apart from other occupied states in that approximately 1/3 of the Belarusian population was killed during the German occupation (Ioffe). Belarusian partisan groups appeared as early as 22 June 1941 when the German Wehrmacht entered Belarus, and the partisan movement grew to about 374,000 strong by 1944 when the Red Army liberated the country (Ioffe). By the time the Red Army reached Minsk in 1944, there were approximately 997 partisan units taking orders from Soviet commanders with an additional 258 units operating independently throughout the country (Iotte). Accounting for the assassinations of nearly 500,000 German military personnel and collaborators as well as the destruction of numerous trains, supply depots, telephone wire, tanks, aircraft, vehicles, bridges, and garrisons, the partisan units were instrumental in the defeat of the German army in Belarus and the westward advance of the Red Army. After the war, Belarus was given increased autonomy in the Soviet Union until its formal independence in 1991 (Iotte).
Polish partisans operated widely in Poland and western Belarus during the occupation of Poland. Formed in 1939 following the joint German-Soviet invasion of Poland, the Home Army (AK) was the primary armed Polish partisan wing (Ney-Krwawicz). The AK was commanded by the Polish government-in-exile and cooperated with the Soviet Union until 1943 when the USSR refused to recognize the Polish government and began disarming AK units (Geldern). As a result, the AK began treating both Germans and Soviets as hostiles and closely aligned with the British through the end of the war (Kondracki). By June 1944, the AK and its affiliates were responsible for the destruction of thousands of tonnes of military hardware and the liberation of many Polish precincts that paved the way for the Soviet offensive of 19 January 1945. Three days later, the Soviet invasion of Germany began from Warsaw (Ney-Krwawicz).
With the memories of Soviet-Ukrainian War of 1917-1920 and Polish subjugation of western Ukraine in mind, the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) collaborated with the Germans against the Poles and Soviets from 1939-1943 based on the promise of Ukrainian independence (Globalsecurity.org). Stepan Bandera, leader of the OUN, declared an independent “Ukrainian State” on 10 June 1941 with nominal German support. Shortly after in August 1941, the “Ukrainian State” was dissolved and Bandera was transferred to a concentration camp along with many of his associates (Globalsecurity.org). By 1943, the OUN severed ties with the German military and began fighting against both the Germans and Soviets for an independent Ukraine. The OUN and its affiliates helped drive the German army out of Ukraine and used the abandoned German arms and equipment to resist Soviet advance and continued to operate into the 1950s (Globalsecurity.org). The OUN was one of few groups that actively fought against both sides during the Second World War.
In the early months of the Second World War, the Red Army was forced to abandon much of the Soviet frontier in the wake of the German Blitzkrieg. However, the underground partisan movements that arose in opposition to the German occupation were pivotal in the slowing of the German eastern advance and the eventual Soviet victory in Europe. Partisan groups, regardless of their end goals, hampered German war-fighting capabilities by destroying supply and communication lines, disrupting troop movements, and assassinating key German leaders which paved the way for the Red Army’s march to Berlin.
Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: A History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.
Global Security. “Ukraine – Anti-Soviet Partisans – 1941-1949.” (n.d.).
Ioffe, Grigory. “The Partisan Movements in Belarus During World War II (Part One).” Eurasia Daily Monitor (2015).
Kondracki, Tadeusz. “The Warsaw Uprising.” Polish Resistance-AK (n.d.).
Ney-Krwawicz, Marek. “The Polish Underground State and Home Army.” Polish Resistance-AK (n.d.).
von Geldern, James. “Partisans in the Forest.” n.d.